Neon Villains

The need to make villains look villainous. It's practically an instinct. We want to make sure the reader knows not to like this character, so make sure he's not just ugly on the inside, we also make him ugly on the outside. And not just ugly but fugly.

He may be badly scarred or he may be so oily kids could use him as a Slip N Slide. He's likely to have a crooked nose from it having been broken, thick lips, and bad teeth. And if the hero or heroine get close enough, he'll almost undoubtedly have bad breath. In days long gone, he'd also be twirling a mustache.

If you read this description of a character, you're going to know before he even opens his mouth to sneer some diabolical threat that he's the villain. It's like putting a neon sign on their forehead that flashes: villain.

 I see it all the time, and not just from newbie writers, but from writers who should know better. Writers who would never dream of using tired cliches like "cute as a button" or who would call you out for writing a Mary Sue heroine will write these neon villains--these Snidley Whiplashes--without a second thought.

And that's a problem. Because if you're writing the first thought that comes into your head--the first thought about anything--you're writing a cliche.

I'm not the first person to notice this obviously. It's a TV Trope which means it's been done to death.

But it's always much more interesting to play against type.

If you're tempted to write the ugly villain, consider how would it change the readers' perceptions if, instead of making the villain unattractive, he was even *more* attractive than the hero. Would it change your story for the better? Would it give it more depth and texture? I don't see how the answer could be anything but yes.

The attractive evil holds a different kind of horror because what's appealing on the outside covers a rotten core.

The reason serial killers are so scary isn't that they kill lots of people--okay, that's part of why--but it's because they never look that scary. Their neighbors always say things like: He was a quiet guy who kept to himself. It's terrifying to think these monsters might live next door or work in the next cubicle. Ann Rule, who's made a career out of writing about the worst of the worst worked with Ted Bundy at a Seattle suicide prevention hotline and had no clue. How scary is that? (And isn't there something ironic about a serial killer trying to talk people out of committing suicide?)

Think about the shiver that would walk up your spine if you found out that the quiet, nice-looking guy who works next to you had a hobby of picking up women on the weekends and killing them. Imagine if he'd invited you to have a drink with him one Friday night, but you didn't go because of some lame commitment you couldn't get out of.

Isn't that more interesting that if you always thought he was evil because he was just so . . . unattractive?

And here's the deal, if someone looks like a villain, people tend not to trust them, so they have less opportunity to put whatever nefarious plans into actions. This is something con men have understood from time immemorial.

I'll leave you with one last thing to think about, and this is a true story.

There was a woman who worked at the same place I did years ago whose husband had a storage unit in another state. In their marriage, she paid the bills, and she paid that bill every month for at least a couple of years. Until she finally decided it was ridiculous to keep on paying for a unit that obviously didn't have anything in it they couldn't live without. So she stopped paying for it. Just stopped. Without telling her husband. A few months pass. Then the police show up to arrest her husband because they found his last wife's body in the storage unit.

Can you imagine her shock?

I'll guarantee you she wouldn't have married her husband if she'd thought he was a villain, and one assumes she found him at least a little attractive. At least before the arrest. But if he'd looked like a villain and the world worked the way it does in the stories I'm talking about, everyone would have said, "You should have known" and the story would be less shocking. And less interesting.

So make sure your villains aren't cliches. Your readers will thank you.

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